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How to Take Criticism

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Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. ~Winston Churchill

Criticism is crucial for personal improvement. It’s the most direct way to find out what you should improve on. However, accepting criticism can be emotionally challenging. Afterall, we’re only human, who wants to hear bad stuff about ourselves?

It’s hard to not take it personally. Our instinctive reaction is to become defensive and we shut out potentially helpful and life-enhancing tips. By doing this, we miss out on what could supercharge our improvement.

So how can you take criticism without getting self-conscious and defensive?

Answer: An effective way to accept criticism is to externalize it.

When you externalize criticism, you escape the defensiveness trap. You stop being self-conscious and take criticism objectively, which lets you reap the benefits of the helpful tips that the criticism contains.


The criticism isn’t directed at you personally, but at a writer, artist, worker, developer (or whatever else you’re getting feedback for) that just happens to have the same name as you. When you take criticism objectively, your initial defensiveness fades away, simply because you’re not taking it personally anymore.

Externalizing criticism lets you extract helpful tips from even the most critical feedback. You take the bits that make sense to you and discard the rest. You don’t risk getting defensive or even feeling bad or self-conscious.

Externalizing criticism is also a shield from bad and unhelpful criticism. It doesn’t matter how much or what kind of comments and criticism you get: you look at it all objectively. You can take what makes sense to you and discard the rest.

When you externalize criticism, you can easily take and use it to supercharge your personal improvement.

5 Steps to Effectively Taking Criticism

Ready to improve your taking of criticism? Good.

Next time you ask for feedback, follow these 5 steps to externalize criticism:

  1. Wait for your gut reaction to pass before doing anything – let your emotions disappear, so you don’t take the criticism personally and become defensive
  2. Imagine the criticism is directed at someone else – some person who happens to have your name and does exactly what you do
  3. Keep your mouth shut – listen, don’t defend
  4. Discuss the person’s points – asking questions will a) help you to get even more useful tips from them, and b) externalize the criticism more (you’re seeing it even more objectively this way)

Rinse and repeat every time you get feedback until externalizing criticism becomes a habit.

(Bonus) How to even more effectively take criticism:

  1. Be confident – believe in what you do, so that even the most critical comments don’t sway your direction
  2. Have a clear goal in what you’re doing – so when you ask for feedback on it, you can take criticism to improve the key areas rather than let others dictate the direction and get lost

Why It’s So Hard to Take Criticism

The reason we get defensive when taking criticism is because we’re tied to our ego. So when someone is giving tips on how we can improve, that person is indirectly acknowledging that we’re not great at something. And our ego gets bruised.

As Dr. Leon F. Seltzer explains in his Psychology Today article on why criticism is so hard to take:

Criticism, even well-intended criticism, can be understood as a direct assault on our ego. When (however unconsciously) we’ve come to associate our very selves with our ego or point of view, then whenever our perspective is questioned, disbelieved, or disputed, we cannot but experience ourselves in jeopardy – our mental and emotional poise at once thrown into disequilibrium.

Even if it’s made clear that the criticism is not to criticize but instead show how you can improve, you naturally want to defend yourself. And when you go into defensive mode, you don’t get the tips from the criticism that could really supercharge your improvement.

So detach yourself from your ego – at least when you take criticism. Externalize the criticism so you look at it objectively, rather than as a critique of yourself (and thus your ego).

My Experience with Criticism

I used to be so defensive and self-conscious when I took criticism. But I was able to overcome those things – now I automatically externalize criticism almost as soon as it’s said.

In fact, I’ve had friends and acquaintances comment on how well I take their criticism. I’m not trying to brag but rather prove that someone who took criticism super-personally was able to escape the defensiveness trap and objectively take criticism. That helped me to gather helpful tips and supercharge my personal improvement.

Back when it was an insurmountable challenge for me to take criticism, I kept making the same mistake: I convinced myself that I could take it. I asked people to not hold back with their feedback. But as soon as the criticism started, I immediately got defensive.

My gut reaction was to take criticism personally. It’s a natural reaction for humans, after all.

However, I knew something needed to change. I was missing out on valuable tips for personal improvement. I saw how certain people took the criticism I gave them really well. How did they do it? I started paying attention.

The first thing I noticed is that almost right away they started discussing the criticism with me. They weren’t interested in convincing me why they did something – they didn’t try to defend anything. Instead, they were interested in what tips for improvement I had. They asked me questions to clarify or go further into detail on something I said.

It’s like we weren’t even talking about them but rather someone else.

And that’s when it hit me: they were externalizing the criticism.


They weren’t taking it personally. They externalized my criticism so that they could look at it objectively, taking what made sense from what I said.

So I started training myself to externalize criticism. No secret tricks here: just practicing each time I asked for criticism.

I asked for feedback and then forced myself to disconnect from the criticism. It was hard at first… okay, I failed miserably. But it got easier each time. Little by little, the defensiveness started disappearing earlier and earlier in the criticism process. I was taking it personally less and less.

After a few weeks, I learned to disconnect myself from the criticism almost immediately. The gut reaction of defensiveness passes as soon as it pops up. I don’t latch onto the criticism emotionally. It’s like getting startled: just a body reaction that passes as soon as it appears.

With the personal connection and emotion to the criticism gone, I’m able to look at the criticism and how to improve myself objectively. It’s as if I was looking at someone else who happens to have the same name as me.

Over the next few months, I kept doing the same thing to solidify the externalizing of criticism. During those few months, externalizing criticism became a habit.

Now, I don’t have to think about it anymore – externalizing criticism comes naturally.

I’ve trained myself to externalize criticism within the first few seconds. So that it’s not directed at me, but an artist that is named Oleg Mokhov. I can then look at the criticism objectively and not feel emotionally involved. I take the bits that make sense to me and easily ignore the rest.

In addition to externalizing criticism, I also trained myself to keep my mouth shut. Easier for myself and for the other person.

Unless I really need them to know something, it’s not worth the time and energy to try to defend or convince them of something. My resources are better spent creating something remarkable than defending the process. I’ll take the handful of helpful tips from that person’s criticism and focus on improving rather than defend what I’ve been doing.

How to Take Criticism

Having trouble taking criticism? Know that the useful tips can help, but you block yourself from them by taking criticism personally and getting defensive? Don’t worry – it’s a natural reaction, and there’s a solution: Effectively accept criticism by externalizing it.

You’ll supercharge your personal improvement by being able to easily get useful tips from people’s feedback. You’ll look at the criticism objectively and take away what makes sense to you, using it to improve what you’re doing. And by listening and discussing instead of defending, you’ll get even more use out of the criticism.

Now go out there and ask for some feedback. Take the criticism, externalize it, and supercharge your improvement.

* How has externalizing criticism worked for you? What other methods have helped you to take criticism? Other thoughts and ideas? Share your voice in the comments. See you there!

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About the author

Oleg Mokhov is the world's most mobile electronic musician and co-founder of the premium royalty free music store Soundtrackster.

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45 thoughts on How to Take Criticism

  1. I think constructive criticism is alway necessary. But pure bashing is just a way for someone to take away your pride and the joy of your own creation. Here is a tip: Be aware of who you listen to. Ask yourself, if this person a credible source? It all about who you listen to, so it’s best to listen to a person who has been there ,done that. Than a person who has just been there, but doesn’t do anything.

  2. Lyn

    What I’d love is how to give criticism – I have a friend who is quite rude to me at times – just through her thoughtlessness – and I don’t know if I should say anything – or how to say it…..usually I just walk away – but most of the time I like her – just not her attitude…..! Cheers..

  3. It’s really interesting. I’ve never had a problem with criticism. Sometimes I feel like I have a chemical imbalance or something?

  4. Oleg,

    This is my first visit to your site, and I really enjoy it. Reading this post reminds me of one of the presuppositions of NLP:

    There is no failure, only feedback.

    If we can learn to accept this presupposition and silence the self criticism that we automatically succumb to when we are corrected or criticized we can remove a major barrier to our success.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Chris

  5. I just think of criticism as advice, and knowing that I can take it or leave it, makes it no problem at all!

  6. I loved this article. For me, the difference is between criticism and critique: criticism merely tells me what I’m doing wrong [often cruelly], whereas critique helps me explores ways I could be doing it right. As I’ve gotten more public with blogging, etc, I’ve become a lot better about understanding that sometimes people will criticize me, and often it’s more about them than it is about me. It’s the rare critique – balanced and helpful – that I actually listen to and take into account.

    Great post. Love this blog. :-D

  7. Hm, by now, I have a different way to handle criticism. I have learned, accepted and internalized the simple motto:

    I can, will and do fail. It is natural and as long as I use failures to prevent similar failures, failures are a good thing and nothing to worry about. Obviously, depending on the type of failure, more or less drastic measures must be taken to cope with the situation this failure produces. However, there is no need to grief about this failure if it was not maliciously and conciously produced. We need to solve the horrors that follow it.

    However, given this, it is easy to deal with criticism. Criticism points out a failure. Well, I am not surprised, because I know I fail. And I am not too concerned, because I know failures are natural and usually not too bad, as long as I can conclude a way to avoid this failure from now on.

    I won’t kid you, and I won’t say “Ah, it was easy to get into this mindset”. It was quite hard, especially if you are not used to failing. However, once you are there, it is quite convenient, because failures cannot drag you down anymore. They are no more roadblocks, but they rather are these tiny improvements that — over time — make you great.

  8. Fantastic post! In life we all face criticism from time to time and it can be really difficult to deal with. I love your suggestions (as well as those offered by Tetha in the comment above mine!).

  9. I know all of us wish we were better at taking criticism. I know I do.
    But it is very difficult. Even if you are open to what the person is saying you want to justify what you have done so that they don’t think worse of you, it’s that ego talking ;)

    You technique seems very interesting, I have over the last few years been working hard at personal development, meaning I have had to give myself and receive from others a lot of criticism.

    All this “practice” has helped me become better at it, even though I am far from good.
    With you technique maybe we can find the last step that we need to start listening to what the other person is saying and discussing the advice rather than the process or actions they are criticising.

    Thanks a lot for this blog post!
    Daniel

  10. Great article… Criticism isn’t easy.. but when done right its very important… love this quote

    Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary.
    It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body.
    It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
    ~ Winston Churchill

    Brian

  11. I am so bad at taking criticism. I get the faintest hint of disapproval and I burst into tears and can’t stop crying. I’m not sure whether these tips will help or not but I’ll definitely try them. But I’ve definitely had difficulty with this before. Its not even that I’m sad or really that upset, its just like my mental reaction to any type of criticism.

  12. Handling criticism is a tough one. For me, it helps to have an enormous amount of love and respect for people’s differences. That includes differences of opinion. When I’m being criticized, I find comfort in the fact that everyone experiences life so differently. It is impossible for us to all agree on everything and that wouldn’t be fun anyway.

  13. Thanks for the information and keep up the good work

  14. Thanks for this article. It couldn’t be more timely! Warmly, Misty.

  15. Criticism is a great tool when it comes to self improvement. I like it because it gives you a third person’s point of view. I recently wrote a post on this as well. You can find it here The hardest thing about taking criticism is getting over your natural defensiveness. If you can do that, you can take the criticism and work on improving it immediately.

    Thanks for the post, some great insights. I too have found keeping my mouth shut instead of making a knee jerk comment is the best thing to do. Because once you make a knee jerk comment (most likely a form of defense) its almost like your pride makes you stick with what you say.

  16. I think that criticism is inevitable in everything we do. We must accept it and don’t let it let us down as bad as it is. Everyone can have an opinion and not everybody is right. After all, there is no wrong or right in something that you do. Accepting criticism means accepting others’ opinions.

    Chris

  17. Shamiso

    Thanks for a great article really informative and tackling the issue that even i find difficult to deal with. Criticism really is an important tool if you want to improve on whatever it is you do. However, I would suggest that when we criticize other people, we do in a thoughtful and constructive way to avoid backlashes and defensive mechanisms.

  18. I think the first couple comments pose good questions…when is it criticism and when is it bashing? I have a friend who constantly gives me “feedback” and “advice.” Do you recommend this approach with everyone, or are there times when you have to respectfully ask that the other person’s opinion be kept to him/herself?

  19. Scott Dinsmore

    Excellent article Oleg. It definitely takes patience but learning how to constructively take criticism is so worth it. I certainly could be better at it and I guess we always could. I’ve found that taking the belief that most people are not out to attack and make you feel badly is the best way to keep things external and objective. Great thoughts! Thanks.

    And Tina, per your recommendation a few weeks back, I spent a bunch of time with Philosophers Notes. What a brilliant service he’s created. Great rec!

    Scott

  20. You really need to lay your ego aside and evaluate the criticism. Some people do use ‘constructive criticism’ as a way to beat you up, but you have to take a big girl pill and deal with the place it’s coming from.

  21. Criticism is the way of improve someone’s skills. I just think of criticism as advice, and knowing that I can take it or leave it, makes it no problem at all. Thanks for such good post.

  22. Laura

    I have just been checking out this entire website. It is unbelievably useful and informative. I hope I can start internalising the advice, put it into action and start improving my inner self all round. The power lies within ourselves to do so.

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